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Best Songs About America: 30 Rockers From The Free World
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Best Songs About America: 30 Rockers From The Free World

Whether the States is united or divided, these best songs about America celebrate – and sometimes critique – The Land Of The Free.

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It’s a rhetorical question, but can you really imagine how rock and pop music could have evolved without the United States Of America? If it wasn’t for indigenous music such as the blues, we wouldn’t have had rock’n’roll and all that came after, so it’s fair to say we owe the US a pretty hefty debt of gratitude when it comes to most musical genres. Celebrating – and sometimes critiquing – one of the biggest nations in the world, the best songs about America go some way towards repaying that debt.

Best Songs About America: 30 Rockers From The Free World

30: Damn Yankees: Don’t Tread On Me (1992)

Featuring Tommy Shaw (Styx), Ted Nugent (Amboy Dukes) and Jack Blades (Night Ranger), the explosive but short-lived rock supergroup Damn Yankees wore their political convictions with pride – even unfurling US flags onstage during the tour supporting their self-titled debut album, whose 1990 release coincided with the start of the first Persian Gulf War. The band amped up the rhetoric further on their second album, Don’t Tread, which featured the defiant Don’t Tread On Me (“Make love not war/Was your claim to fame/Now you’re takin’ me down/Well I won’t be tamed”), but while present-day listeners could take issue with the lyrical content, Damn Yankees’ sincerity was never in any doubt.

29: Grateful Dead: US Blues (1974)

One of Grateful Dead’s more direct and succinct, song-based releases, 1974’s From The Mars Hotel opened with US Blues, a rollin’ and tumblin’ R&B workout with lyrics supplied by long-time Dead associate Robert Hunter. Originally known as Wave That Flag, the song had been a staple of the Dead’s live set during 1973, but was briefly dropped while Hunter toned down the polemic to reflect the state of play as US involvement in Vietnam was winding down. In the end, this satirical song (which also referenced the rock’n’roll standard Blue Suede Shoes) sounded both playful and pithy, and, proving its worth among the best songs about America, it was frequently aired live right up to the Dead’s final shows, in 1995.

28: Weezer: I Love The USA (2016)

Promoted by a memorable video featuring comedian Patton Oswalt running rampant in the White House, Weezer’s I Love The USA was released as both a digital single and a bonus track on the deluxe edition of the band’s “White Album”. Frontman Rivers Cuomo wrote the song while suffering a bout of homesickness of sorts while on tour abroad, though his paean to his native land was both heartfelt and tongue-in-cheek. Though he penned it in 2015, when Weezer were approached by Apple Music and NASA to release I Love The USA as part of a celebration of the Juno spacecraft’s arrival at Jupiter on July 4 the following year, Cuomo agreed, rightly noting that the song “seemed like the perfect fit” for the occasion.

27: David Byrne And Brian Eno: America Is Waiting (1981)

America Is Waiting was the opening track on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s groundbreaking collaboration My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts: a record which presaged the age of sampling by integrating found sounds and “guest” vocalists ranging from TV evangelists to Lebanese mountain singers. Originally going uncredited in the album’s sleevenotes, America Is Waiting featured the voice of San Francisco-based radio talk-show host Ray Taliaferro, known for his lively (and sometimes) confrontational broadcasts. Like Byrne and Eno themselves, Taliaferro was a pioneering figure in his field: he’s widely believed to be the first Black talk-show host to have graced a major radio station in the US in 1967, and his manic delivery worked beautifully when aligned with the claustrophobic hypno-funk of Byrne and Eno’s music.

26: Grand Funk Railroad: We’re An American Band (1973)

A memorable signature hit if ever there was one, We’re An American Band provided Grand Funk Railroad’s seventh album with its title track, and it also became the group’s first No.1 single. Written and sung by drummer Don Brewer, and produced by Todd Rundgren, this hedonistic rocker derived from the Michigan trio’s antics on tour, with its lyrics referencing playing poker with blues great Freddie King; traveling through Little Rock, Arkansas; and partying with groupies who snuck into their hotel in Omaha, Nebraska. OK, you could say that was simply a day in the life of any rock’n’roll group during the 70s, but seeing how GFR turned their hijinks into one of the best songs about America, we should be glad that what happened on tour didn’t stay on tour – at least on this occasion.

25: Little Feat: Dixie Chicken (1973)

As its title hints, Little Feat’s third album, Dixie Chicken, was inspired by (and steeped in) New Orleans R&B, even though it was actually recorded during sessions in several Hollywood studios. Loose as a goose, the album’s terrific title track stands as one of the best Little Feat songs: riding a swaggering groove, its vivid lyrics (“Underneath a street lamp, I met a Southern belle/Well, she took me to the river, where she cast her spell”) put the finishing touches to one of the best songs about America to come from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

24: Lou Reed: Last Great American Whale (1989)

After a relatively nondescript mid-80s, Lou Reed’s formidable 15th album, New York, was greeted with widespread acclaim, putting the former Velvet Underground leader right back in contention. A perfect example of writing about what you know, the album was topical, polemical and hard-hitting in the way only a great Lou Reed album can be, and while much of it homed in on his beloved Big Apple, songs such as Busload Of Faith, Strawman and Last Great American Whale railed against the wider societal malaise in modern North America. At once sparse, seething and incredibly moving, the latter song pulled few punches (“Americans don’t care too much for beauty/They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream”), and it also proved that some of the best songs about America can be iconoclastic, too.

23: David Lee Roth: Yankee Rose (1986)

Singer David Lee Roth’s third post-Van Halen solo hit, Yankee Rose, is something of a Trojan horse. With its stomping beat and explosive guitar shredding, courtesy of virtuosic wunderkind Steve Vai, it initially seems typical of the big-haired hard-rock anthems that ruled the roost during the late 80s – but it’s not quite that. Indeed, once you get past the bumping and grinding, you realise that Roth was actually paying tribute to the Statue Of Liberty (“the original good time girl”) on the occasion of its centenary. Add the lyrical allusions to everything from Irving Berlin’s God Bless America to the United States’ annual Independence Day celebrations, and the penny drops that Yankee Rose isn’t so much a paean to the girl of Roth’s dreams, but a patriotic love letter to the American dream itself.

22: Billy Bragg And Wilco: California Stars (1998)

Attracting widespread critical acclaim upon release, Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue album featured previously unheard lyrics penned by trailblazing US folk singer Woody Guthrie, put to music written and performed by British singer-songwriter Bragg and the Chicago-based alt-rock stars Wilco. Quirky, heartfelt and rarely less than engrossing, the collaboration (which later spawned a second volume and, eventually, a box set with a third full-length collection of songs) included numerous moments of magic, with the glorious, John Steinbeck-esque California Stars quickly staking its claim among the best songs about America.

21: Blur: Look Inside America (1997)

Blur’s disastrous tour of the US in support of their debut album, Leisure, left frontman Damon Albarn harbouring extreme antipathy towards North American culture. This initially worked in the band’s favour, as they developed a distinctive sound of their own, with their increasingly successful Britpop trilogy, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape, establishing them as one of the UK’s biggest acts during the mid-90s.

However, guitarist Graham Coxon’s love of US alt-rock acts such as Slint and Pavement informed the more left-field direction of Blur’s self-titled album, issued in 1997. Acknowledging his band’s recalibration with the wider world, the album’s glorious, string-assisted Look Inside America found Albarn softening his stance on the US (“She’s alright, she’s alright/Sitting out the distance/But I’m not trying to make her mine”), and it paid dividends, with the widely-hailed record even yielding the band’s first Stateside gold disc.

20: Funkadelic: One Nation Under A Groove (1978)

Originally released in September 1978, One Nation Under A Groove was Funkadelic’s most commercially successful album, reaching No.1 on Billboard’s Soul LPs chart and No.16 on the Billboard 200, and being certified platinum in the US.

Arguably the band’s signature hit, the album’s title track also remains a pioneering funk classic, and it significantly raised George Clinton’s crew’s profile when it topped the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart for six weeks while also going on to reward the band with their only UK Top 10 hit. Effectively espousing the idea of dancing as a way to achieve freedom regardless of creed or colour, One Nation Under A Groove’s roots were in protest, but the music’s infectious positivity arguably broke down most barriers. It remains a high-water mark in 70s Black music, and it’s long since earned the right to stand tall among the best songs about America.

19: MC5: The American Ruse (1970)

Detroit proto-punks MC5 often took flak for their pro-counterculture stance and anti-establishment leanings, but they weren’t anti-patriotic – rather, they were concerned citizens who were royally sick with the status quo as they saw it in the late 60s. The group made an especially concerted attempt to address the big issues of the day on their second album, 1970’s Back In The USA, produced by future Bruce Springsteen mentor Jon Laudau. Its most incendiary rocker, The American Ruse, found them raging against the US political machine in style: “I learned to say the pledge of allegiance/Before they beat me bloody down at the station.

18: David Byrne: Miss America (1997)

Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne wrote 1997’s potent Miss America from the perspective of an immigrant trying to make it in the US. Appealing on his solo album Feelings, the song’s protagonist’s idea of America and all it stands for (“I miss America and sometimes she does, too/And sometimes I think of her/When she is fucking you”) comes across as seductive and yet as elusive and unobtainable as the supermodels featured in its suitably glitzy, thought-provoking promo video.

17: Ramones: California Sun (1977)

The enduring California Sun initially provided Indiana surf-rock outfit The Rivieras with their biggest hit when it was issued through the New York City-based Roulette label in 1964. That seems fitting, for the song was written by the label’s A&R chief, Henry Glover, who also happened to be a consummate songwriter, arranger and trumpet player, with credits including co-writing Joey Dee And The Starliters’ 1961 US No.1 hit, Peppermint Twist, and producing the Grammy-winning The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album in 1975. Despite its history, the versatile California Sun was the perfect fit for Ramones’ buzzsaw punk-pop template, and “Da Bruddas” arguably cut the song’s definitive version for their sizzling second album, Leave Home.

16: Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers: American Girl (1976)

American Girl rode shotgun throughout Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ entire career. Their first song to enter the UK Top 40, in August 1977, it was reprised for a global audience during the band’s Live Aid slot, in 1985, and – fittingly – became the last song the group ever performed live, at their final gig, at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl, in September 2017. Its gritty, cinematic quality evokes timelessness, and the fact that Billboard declared it to be “practically part of the US literary canon” cements its reputation among the best songs about America.

15: Chuck Berry: Back In The USA (1959)

A song which proudly champions the American way of life, Chuck Berry’s 1959 hit Back In The USA was inspired by an Australian tour during which the pioneering rock’n’roller witnessed the native Aboriginal peoples’ less-than-salubrious standard of living. A low-riding rocker performed with an all-star blues band including pianist Johnnie Johnson and bassist Willie Dixon, Back In The USA featured vivid lyrics (“Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café/Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day”) which yearned for the comforts of home. An early contender among the best songs about America, its appealing, all-American slant has since lent itself to memorable covers by artists ranging from MC5 to Linda Ronstadt.

14: Aretha Franklin: America (My Country, ’Tis Of Thee) (2011)

Originally penned by the 19th-century American Baptist minister Samuel Francis Smith, America (My Country, ’Tis Of Thee) served as one of the de facto national anthems of the United States (along with Hail, Columbia) before the adoption of The Star-Spangled Banner as the official US national anthem in 1931.

Nonetheless, the song has been close at hand during numerous game-changing events in US history. Martin Luther King, Jr, included its first verse towards the end of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, on 28 August 1963, and Aretha Franklin performed a show-stopping version of the song during President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, in 2009, before recording it for her final album, 2011’s A Woman Falling Out Of Love.

13: James Brown: Living In America (1985)

Effectively James Brown’s swansong, 1985’s Living In America provided the Godfather Of Soul with his first Billboard Top 10 hit in a decade and also his first and only UK Top 10 smash. One of the best songs about America, this brash, confident single gained additional exposure through its use in the high-profile movie Rocky IV (starring Sylvester Stallone), and it was promoted with an equally slick (and extremely memorable) video depicting the razzmatazz of the US in the glorious Technicolor.

12: Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land (1944)

It’s difficult to countenance drawing up a list of the best songs about America without including one of the continent’s greatest folk songs. Though he didn’t record it until 1944, influential US folk singer Woody Guthrie initially wrote This Land Is Your Land four years earlier, in criticism of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. In the years since, this impassioned socialist hymnal has taken on a life of its own, lending itself to reworkings by artists as disparate as Bing Crosby, Billy Bragg, The Waterboys, The Chieftains and even anarcho-punks Zounds.

Though effectively an anthem for the dispossessed, This Land Is Your Land has gradually been accepted by the establishment. In 2002, the Library Of Congress selected it to be added to North America’s National Recording Registry, and, in 2021, Jennifer Lopez performed some verses of the song as part of a medley with America The Beautiful at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

11: Simon And Garfunkel: America (1968)

Simon And Garfunkel’s fourth album, Bookends, explored a life journey from childhood to old age. A lofty concept on paper, it was executed to near-perfection on record, attracting widespread critical acclaim and topping both the US and UK charts. One of the album’s key tracks, America, concerned young lovers hitchhiking their way across the US in search of “America” – in both a literal and figurative sense – and it was an entirely personal song for Paul Simon, who had made such a journey in 1964 with his then girlfriend, Kathy Chitty. Undoubtedly one of the best songs about America, Rolling Stone declared that it “evokes the panorama of restless, paved America and simultaneously illuminates a drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications”.

10: Alice Cooper: I Love America (1983)

Such was the level of excess in and around Alice Cooper’s band in the early 80s that Cooper has since admitted he recalls little about recording his final trio of Warner Bros albums, Special Forces, Zipper Catches Skin or DaDa. However, these records contain a fair smattering of decent material, not least DaDa, which adroitly mixes Cooper’s tried and tested horror-rock with more modern, new wave leanings. Its first single was the excellent I Love America: a widescreen anthem with tongue-in-cheek lyrics (“I love that mountain with the four big heads/I love Velveteen slapped on Wonder Bread/I love a commie, even if he’s good and dead”) which alternates between hailing and lambasting a wealth of all-American clichés.

9: The Doors: L’america (1971)

The Doors actually nailed L’America some months before the LA Woman sessions, as the song was intended for Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult 1970 movie, Zabriskie Point. When it ended up on the cutting-room floor, The Doors included it on LA Woman, where it sits well among other brooding, atmospheric songs such as Hyacinth House and Riders On The Storm. There’s still a debate as to whether Jim Morrison was referring to Latin America or Los Angeles with the song’s title, but wherever the truth lies, L’America has bags of presence and a hypnotic final coda which never fails to impress.

8: Don McLean: American Pie (1971)

The lyrics to Don McLean’s enigmatic, yet eminently catchy American Pie have been pored over for decades, with the song’s many fans undertaking nigh-on-forensic searches for Bob Dylan-esque hidden meanings. McLean himself later confessed that at least some of it was autobiographical, though the song’s most famous phrase, “The day the music died”, definitely refers to the notorious plane crash which killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. American Pie’s mystique has always been part of the attraction, but as its popularity has long since crossed genres, and it ranks in the Top 5 of the most successful songs in the US (just behind Over The Rainbow and White Christmas), questioning its status as one of the best songs about America is a fool’s errand.

7: David Bowie: Young Americans (1975)

David Bowie disentangled himself from the tail-end of glam with 1974’s Diamond Dogs album, but he flipped the script completely with its rapid-fire follow-up, 1975’s Young Americans, which found him exploring his growing obsession with soul music. Stylistically, it was an abrupt volte-face, and releasing the album’s title track as its lead single was a risk – not least because the song married a slice of slick Philly soul with a memorably cynical lyric referencing potentially taboo subjects such as McCarthyism and disgraced former US President Richard Nixon. As ever, though, Bowie’s fearless ambition won the day, and Young Americans scored him his breakthrough US hit. Almost five decades on, it might just be the best song about America written by an Englishman.

6: Ray Charles: America The Beautiful (1976)

Arguably the most openly patriotic entry in this list of the best songs about America, America The Beautiful is a hymnal with a chequered past. Its lyric was penned by US professor Katherine Lee Bates, and its music was composed separately by a New Jersey choirmaster and organist, Samuel A Ward, in the late 19th century. The two weren’t put together until 1910, however, when the song officially became known as America The Beautiful. Hauntingly beautiful, it has since been recorded by a host of stars, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Charlie Rich, though the deeply felt, soul-infused version Ray Charles recorded in 1976 for the US Bicentennial arguably remains the definitive take.

5: Madonna: American Life (2003)

Madonna has never shied away from controversy, but even by her standards, American Life polarised opinion. However, while critics homed in on its lyrical content, the song still topped the charts in numerous territories, and it certainly got people talking – surely one of pop’s primary functions, even in these jaded times. American Life’s unlikely amalgam of folk, pop and techno still sounds futuristic, and while Madonna was railing against the shallowness of modern life during the presidency of George W Bush, her barbed observations (“I’m just living out the American dream/And I just realised that nothing is what it seems”) still provide food for thought.

4: Green Day: American Idiot (2005)

Akin to Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen, Green Day’s American Idiot has often been wilfully misrepresented. Yes, both tracks were (and remain) incendiary punk classics, but in the same way that John Lydon didn’t actually call the Queen a moron, Billie Joe Armstrong wasn’t suggesting that all his fellow-Americans were cretins – rather, that mass media saturation in the US was helping to create paranoia among – and effectively brainwash – vast swathes of the country’s population. One of the best songs about America in the 21st century, its searing, pro-individuality stance hit a nerve, as American Idiot was nominated for four Grammy Awards and, as Kerrang! suggested, “did for Green Day’s generation and their country what Sex Pistols did for the United Kingdom in 1977”.

3: Bruce Springsteen: Born In The USA (1984)

As with American Idiot, Born In The USA has also been misunderstood on a grand scale, though Springsteen inadvertently encouraged that by making it the title song of one of his biggest-selling records, and draping said album’s artwork in a Stars’n’Stripes backdrop. Born In The USA’s fist-pumping energy also ensured it was perfect for the live arena, and when Springsteen fans heard it performed to sell-out crowds, many took it to be a feel-good patriotic rock song. However, while Born In The USA is undeniably patriotic, it’s really a lament about the nation’s struggling blue-collar class. Portraying a heroic Vietnam War veteran as a tragic figure alienated by his own country after returning from battle, it really is anything but gung-ho.

2: Prince: America (1985)

Arriving in the wake of the colossal Purple Rain, Prince’s seventh album, Around The World In A Day, tends to be remembered for its flagship hits Raspberry Beret and Pop Life, but its final single, America, saw the Purple One take a well-aimed swipe at his homeland in the grip of the Reagan era. Referencing the twin threats of communism (“If the government turn over/It’ll be the only word that’s heard”) and nuclear war (“Nothing made Jimmy proud/Now Jimmy lives on a mushroom cloud”), Prince’s state-of-the-nation address was bang on point in those tense, pre-Glasnost days, and it still packs a punch as one of the best songs about America today.

1: Neil Young: Rockin’ In The Free World (1989)

After a run of almost deliberately esoteric albums during the 80s, Neil Young ended the decade on a high with Freedom: a diverse, yet satisfying record which reached its peak with the hard-hitting Rockin’ In The Free World. Reprising his Rust Never Sleeps tactic with Hey Hey, My My, Freedom contained both acoustic and electric takes on Rockin’ In The Free World, and while the amped-up version arguably has the edge, both takes represent Young at his fieriest and most committed. Lyrically, he was commenting on current events both at home (George HW Bush’s administration) and abroad (Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini), but many of the issues Young rails against – among them homelessness and the state of the environment – have only intensified since Rockin’ In The Free World first took flight. Accordingly, whether we’re talking great protest songs or the best songs about America, this one’s right up there.

Original article: 4 July 2021

Updated: 4 July 2022

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